Tuesday, July 30, 2013
I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road
When Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's musical I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road opened at the Public in 1978, the theater critics who reviewed it were hostile. (The enormously ironic exception was the typically cranky John Simon,who wrote one of the show's most effusive, supportive reviews.) Walter Kerr started his review of the show by complaining about how stupid and pointless that whole pesky women's lib thing struck him, and then focused in on how unattractive he thought Gretchen Cryer, who originated the lead character, Heather, was, and how sloppy he thought her outfit looked. A number of other critics (most, but not all of them, male) were somewhat less nasty, but nonetheless used their reviews as springboards for criticism of the second wave with astounding regularity. Cryer and Ford assumed that, with such negative reception, their producer, Joe Papp, would close the show. This was especially the case since Papp had gone on record about the fact that he wasn't an enormous fan of the show, at least at first--it just wasn't angry enough for him. But when he saw the reviews, he got angry. Convinced that there was an audience for Getting My Act Together, he not only refused to listen to the critics, but he also pumped more money than he'd intended into advertising and marketing the show. This was a very smart move, by a very smart dude who was perhaps not fully liberated, but was certainly working on it harder than Walter Kerr was.
Word-of-mouth took off like wildfire, and within six weeks of I'm Getting My Act Together's less-than-promising critical opening, it was playing to full houses. It turns out--go figure--that a lot of women who found themselves at a crossroads both personally and professionally in the middle of the 1970s--and thus in the middle of the second wave, the middle of the gay rights movement, and the middle of the "me" decade--connected with Heather in a way that the overwhelmingly male critical corps in New York didn't, quite. Many such women brought their spouses or partners along to see the show, often after having seen it already; the after-performance talkbacks held on Wednesday nights quickly took on the tone of giant--and often very heated--couples' therapy sessions. Cryer has noted that during these talkbacks, the cast soon got into the habit of sitting silently, and simply letting various battles between the sexes wage around them. The show, like the movement that helped inspire it, really connected with a lot of spectators, and utterly infuriated others.
Papp extended Getting My Act Together at the Public several times before finally moving the show to a larger Off Broadway house, the Circle in the Square, where it ran for several years before going...um...on the road. Act Together enjoyed several national and international tours, productions in Los Angeles, Chicago, and London, among other cities, and cast recordings in several different languages.
The new Encores summer series, "Off Center," which is run by composer Jenine Tesori, included Getting My Act Together in its inaugural season, which seems to have been a smashing success. Act Together was certainly immensely enjoyable--I saw the last performance, and was so glad to have gotten the chance to see it. Clearly, I wasn't alone--times have changed enough that the show no longer infuriates or frustrates en masse; the audience I saw it with was welcoming, effusive, and wholly supportive. This revival was no bad session at couples' therapy--it was the warmest, most affirming consciousness-raising session in town.
Like all Encores shows, the revival of Act Together had a miniscule run--just a few performances over the course of a weekend--and was relatively bare-bones in planning and execution. Both Renee Elise Goldsberry, as Heather, and Frederick Weller, as Joe, were on book for some of the talkier scenes, which is typical of the series; I found the show so engaging that I barely noticed their occasional need to glance at their scripts. Also typically, the set was kept very simple--just a bunch of huge, colorful, groovy scarves hung around a platform on which Heather and her Liberated Man's Band Plus Two (to include the two female backup singers) performs. Off to the side, Heather's manager and former lover, Joe, sits, watches the band perform as they rehearse for the opening night of her new act, and gripes. He doesn't like Heather's new act or her new attitude, he doesn't get the women's movement in general, he doesn't know how to deal with his deeply damaged marriage, and he is frustrated with contemporary American culture. Heather has a better grasp of herself and her needs, but finds Joe's attitude emotionally exhausting and infuriating.
The production made no attempts to update the show--unless you take into consideration the fact that it was far more diverse than the original production, which featured an all-white cast. Reness Elise Goldsberry is African-American, as is Christina Sajous, who played Alice, one of Heather's backup singers. (Her other backup singer, Cheryl, was played by Jennifer Sanchez, who is Latina.) I read this as an attempt to acknowledge the fact that for all its emphasis on white, middle-class women, the second wave was a lot larger and less monolithic than all that. Or perhaps the performers were cast because they were, to a one, exceptionally good in their roles.
Otherwise, however, there was no attempt, at least as far as I could tell, to alter the script, or to update the setting. If the groovy scarves, bell-bottoms, aviator glasses, big hair, and floppy felt hats didn't situate the show in the 1970s firmly enough, there was also the Liberated Man's Band Plus Two's bluesy, fuzzy, pre-show jam of the Beatles' "Come Together" to set the scene. It, like all of the music, was delicious. Call me old-fashioned, but I dig me some '70s soft rock, which was the score to my youth, and this score groks the mellow, synthesized sound and disco-tinged harmonies in a big way. So, too, did the performers, whose interpretations of the score were, to a (wo)man, spot-on.
The dialogue of the show comes off, at least on the surface, as more dated than the score. There's plenty of rapping about heavy issues like getting your head together, finding yourself, dealing with MCPs during intense CR sessions, letting other people know where you're at...and a lot of other lingo that roots this show firmly in its time. The datedness doesn't stop with the creaky jargon--the structure of the show suffers a little, too. The second wave was enormous, if you think about it--no piddly, anemic little ripple, but the kind of wall of water that threatened to sweep you away unless you held your breath and rode with it. The women's movement touched, so suddenly and so profoundly, on so many issues that applied to every aspect of contemporary life: social, political, personal, private, public, economic, legal, sexual, generational, emotional....it's no wonder that so many people, both men and women, felt defensive or angry about it as it grew. And thus one of the more dated aspects of this show is the pacing and content of its arguments between Joe and Heather. The movement was still so new in 1978, and the broader aspects still so all-encompassing, that it's clear that even as they wrote Act Together, Cryer and Ford were not entirely sure how to frame or fully develop some of the more heated debates between the two characters. Heather and Joe thus often argue circularly, are more emotional than productive, and become somewhat repetitive over time: Heather finds the state of the world "disgusting" and "a mess"; Joe cajoles and sighs and pleadingly calls her "honey" over and over and over again. The implications of the movement were new enough in 1978, the show implies, that merely rapping about the distance women and men were feeling from one another, both in and out of the bedroom, both in public and private spaces, was new, enormous, exhausting territory.
The character of Joe has long been criticized as a two-dimensional amalgam (as opposed to, you know, the oodles upon oodles of women characters that men have written, who are always, to a one, brilliantly fully-developed and totally convincing....but I digress, and snarkily so.). In truth, he is the harder, less sympathetic character to play. Joe just can't figure out what the hell is going on, either with Heather or with his needy, childish wife, or with the changing world, or with himself. He is overwhelmingly defensive, and more than a little cartoonish. But that same defensiveness is also present in the realer, more soulful Heather, who wants desperately to be understood, and who bristles endlessly at Joe's inability to follow her into new, risky, more liberated territory. Joe wants Heather to be pretty, to sing songs about traditional love, not to tell the audience how old she is, and not to "depress" them with tales of her divorce or her gradual embrace of the fact that she might spend the rest of her life partnerless. Heather wants to strip away all the baggage and bare her soul to the audience, warts and all. She wants Joe to understand her. She wants all of the men in her life to understand her.
To dismiss Act Together as a dated, 90-minute war between the sexes is unfair. Yes, there are dated aspects to the show--frankly, there are dated aspects to every musical written before last month, so whatever. Sure, in this case, some of the slang is no longer used, and some of the broader strokes of the movement--and of the sexual revolution that helped fuel it--are no longer relevant. Some of the more egregious examples of sexism are, while still present, not quite as prevalent as they were thirty-plus years ago. A growing number of women have built careers between then and now, and as a result, many marriages have edged toward equality. Married people still fool around behind their spouses' backs, but that's no longer treated as hip, sophisticated, and somehow bound up with personal liberation. And when men in power swagger into their place of work and literally or figuratively slap women who work for or with them on the ass--which, I am sure, still happens more than I like to think--there are, at the very least, potential consequences (which the current Mayor of San Diego can tell us about, perhaps, once he gets out of therapy).
That being said, there's plenty that I'm Getting My Act Together touches on that is, alas, still with us. Women are still gradually, steadily erased from the entertainment media once they pass the age of, say, thirty, while men don't have to suffer such indignities. Plenty of men and women have trouble understanding, relating to, communicating with, or respecting one another. Women are still regularly judged for their looks, are paid on the whole less than men for the same work, and are frequently treated as second-class citizens who can't make intelligent, well-formulated decisions for themselves about--well, about themselves. Don't even get me started on the myriad feminist issues that Cryer and Ford didn't get the chance to touch on in their 90-minute show; a lot of that is not terribly pretty in the modern world, either. Maybe because I am now older than Heather is--and thus more squarely rooted in middle age, and thus increasingly less important in this still-flawed world--but I found that watching the revival and comparing then to now was occasionally a real bummer.
Then again, there were the numbers about powerful, strong, intelligent women during the show, all of which got rapturous applause from men and women alike. There was the gloriously moving curtain call that Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer took at the end of the show. Later, there was my realization that the men in my life--regardless of generation, geographical location, or ideology--are, none of them, remotely as cluelessly sexist as Joe; none of the women I know are quite as frustrated or outraged or world-weary as Heather, either. We may have a long way to go, and maybe we're even walking backwards sometimes, but I'm thankful for the second wave, and for pioneers like Ford and Cryer, and for I'm Getting My Act Together, which serves as a reminder that sisterhood is indeed powerful, and that for every mile we still need to go is a mile that we've managed to put--sometimes, even gracefully--behind us.